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consensus in the cause of inertia

By Diogenes (articles ) | Jun 28, 2006

The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams has responded to the decisions of the recent General Congregation of the Episcopal Church with a lengthy Reflection addressed to "Bishops, Clergy and Faithful of the Anglican Communion." Ruth Gledhill, the religion correspondent of the London Times is almost giddy with enthusiasm: "Never again," she says, "can anyone accuse [Williams] of failing to give leadership, or of not speaking plainly."

An overstatement.

If Williams' Reflection really counts as plain speaking within a given association -- it almost reads as a parody of Wither in Lewis's That Hideous Strength -- that goes to show the anticipated level of candor is not high. Gledhill calls it "an intense and passionate theological teaching document for any who are prepared to listen," but this judgment of hers is likewise a head-scratcher. I can find therein no theological teaching whatever, but instead some observations on the sociology of institutions, in this case an institution with (disputed) theological commitments. Consider Williams' reasoning in this passage:

Unless you think that social and legal considerations should be allowed to resolve religious disputes -- which is a highly risky assumption if you also believe in real freedom of opinion in a diverse society -- there has to be a recognition that religious bodies have to deal with the question in their own terms. Arguments have to be drawn up on the common basis of Bible and historic teaching.

Notice the academic head-fakes. Williams doesn't say socio-legal resolution of religious disputes is a false notion, he says it's a "risky assumption." Risky how? What stands to be lost? "Real freedom of opinion in a diverse society." This is valid as far as it goes, but the considerations it puts forward are those addressed not to Anglicans as Anglicans or even to Christians as Christians. The appeal, which itself is political rather than theological in content, is made to any member of a pluralist democratic society. Yet the scholar has so trumped the churchman that even this minimalist appeal is conditional; the Archbishop refuses to take the independent integrity of the Church as common ground among his own addressees. Nor does he appear to believe that the stakes are particularly high:

The reason Anglicanism is worth bothering with is because it has tried to find a way of being a Church that is neither tightly centralised nor just a loose federation of essentially independent bodies -- a Church that is seeking to be a coherent family of communities meeting to hear the Bible read, to break bread and share wine as guests of Jesus Christ, and to celebrate a unity in worldwide mission and ministry.

"The reason Anglicanism is worth bothering with ..." Are we to take this tone of donnish reticence in the spirit of rhetorical mock-modesty ("not that my opinion matters, but ..."), or does it reflect Williams's considered position, i.e., that he wouldn't go to the stake for the truth of Anglicanism per se, but to the extent that it avoids the unpleasantness associated with a tightly centralised body and the inconveniences associated with loosely federated ones, it represents a livable compromise and is "worth bothering with"? In neither case can I find, with Gledhill, anything remotely "intense and passionate." There's no sense that the Gospel or the sacraments or Christian community are ultimately at risk. The worst case scenario, on his terms, is a messy congregational re-alignment attended by ugly property disputes and needlessly hurt feelings.

At one point Williams says that Anglican avoidance of a single controlling bureaucracy "depends on what have generally been unspoken conventions of mutual respect," to which later he proposes a change:

The tacit conventions between us need spelling out -- not for the sake of some central mechanism of control but so that we have ways of being sure we're still talking the same language, aware of belonging to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ.

If taken, this step would be fatal. Think what spelling out these tacit conventions would mean in real terms. Even in this non-directive "reflection" Williams approaches the gay rights faction on all fours, crediting them with only the noblest motives, even as he holds out the possibility that they may be in error, while the words "violence," "bigotry," and "prejudice" are applied -- at least as accusations to be answered -- only to the conservatives. As long as they were tacit, conventions of mutual respect might remain mutual. Were they to be spelled out, the new Ordinances of Mutual Respect would operate in the service of diversity, which means that there'd be nothing mutual about them. It would mean total victory for Gene Robinson.

Several conservative bloggers have taken satisfaction in the fact that liberal Anglicans are more annoyed by Dr. Williams' Reflection than they are. It may be the case that ECUSA is more "challenged" by this document than the Nigerians, in the sense that its proposed demotion to "associate" status -- more accurately, a re-assignment of euphemisms -- is laid at feet of the Robinsonian Caucus and avoidable only if it relents. But more significant is Williams' failure to take a stand on the conservative contention: that God's will on the matter is knowable, that it is right, that no change of social mores and no ecclesiastical polling can make it otherwise. By arguing that the teaching of the Gospel is conditional on consensus, Williams has conceded the really important point.

Back in 1913, when Ronald Knox was still himself an Anglican, the Church of England was roiled by controversy surrounding an ecumenical communion service held at Kikuyu, in what was then British East Africa. An Archbishop's Committee was appointed to study the affair and determine what sanctions, if any, were called for. Knox read the committee's findings attentively and summarized them in these words: "the service at Kikuyu was eminently pleasing to God and must on no account be repeated."

Sound familiar?

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Pseudodionysius - Jun. 28, 2006 3:03 PM ET USA

    Rowan Williams is demonstrating That Hideous Weakness germane to squishy prelates these days; instituting democracy as a way of making the body of the Church neither hot nor cold. The first democracy executed Socrates; the Anglican version beheaded More. Its time for the rest of the body to follow Henry VIII's severing of the Head. Nothing like riding headless as the four horsemen of the Apocalypse approach.

  • Posted by: chiostroman - Jun. 28, 2006 1:57 PM ET USA

    Big fan, Di, but you're unfair here. You and I both love the cold formulations of Rome (try translating the "Reflection" into Latin--you couldn't), but that's not what these people are about. There's plenty of weaseling on its own terms (covenant "...is one method that has been suggested"--note passive voice), but it's a perfectly respectable document in its own tradition, and of considerable courage. It's vastly better English than 99% of the USCCB could muster, damning with faint praise.

  • Posted by: Convert1994 - Jun. 28, 2006 11:19 AM ET USA

    At least Archbishop Williams said, "being a church" rather than "being church." That puts him a step ahead of Cardinal Mahony with respect to rhetoric. At least Cardinal Mahony's ordination is valid. If there are reasons to "bother" with Anglicanism I suggest looking into the martyrdom of Ugandan Archbishop Janani Luwum.

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